The world witnessed a beautiful example of a truly integrated and diverse worship experience through the wedding of Prince Harry and now Princess Meghan Markle.
Each element of the service was beautifully and uniquely balanced between the two cultures of Harry and Meghan.
Choirs, musicians, preachers, readers and readings, hairstyles, outfits and guests – all specially selected and representative of the different cultures of the bride and groom.
While that was a “royal wedding,” there are some important lessons we can learn from their example.
If we are serious about overcoming “Sunday morning segregation,” we must embrace an “intercultural” approach to church.
When we hear the term “intercultural church,” depending upon our perspective, varying images may emerge.
For those in the dominant culture, seeing a few folks of different hues on Sunday morning may appear intercultural.
For those in the minority, their perspectives will depend upon where they are in the assimilation process. If they are comfortable and accustomed to being “one of few,” they, too, may view their church as intercultural.
However, frequently, those minority individuals who desire to bring true diversity to the mix, find themselves bumping up against dominant culture privilege, assumptions and hostilities.
Several factors impact whether or not a “true” intercultural church will or will not emerge as viable, living, thriving. The descriptors, “true” and “viable,” are critical to the discussion.
Many churches who are simply integrated (less than 5 percent of the congregation is of another ethnicity) name themselves “multicultural.”
Similarly, many churches who have a variety of ethnicities on the church roll have “cosmetic diversity” – varying ethnicities participating, but little or no “cultural” representation in the worship, structure or governance of the total congregation.
Laying a foundation, however, for an intercultural church takes much prayer, dialogue, openness and intentionality.
This article explores the illusion of interculturalism and subsequently offers practical strategies for ways churches can truly become intercultural and diverse.
Although churches in 2018 appear to be increasing in diversity, many still wrestle with being intercultural. A persistent, remaining issue is that of power and perception.
If the dominant culture perceives that an increase of minorities will mean a shift in power, they will either “close ranks” or flee.
Conversely, if the cultures strive to be open, to dialogue and to share interests, styles and concerns, newcomers will experience a genuine willingness on the part of original members to work together with them and grow.
Let’s examine biblical and current-day models of intercultural churches.
The first New Testament church was intercultural. The writer of Acts emphasized that on the day of Pentecost, everyone spoke and heard others in their own language and there was understanding. “They were all with one accord in one place” (Acts 2:1-6).
The miracle is still astounding today – when people of “different languages,” both linguistically and culturally, can “hear” and understand one another.
They were not able to do this on their own. This was accomplished by the power of the Holy Spirit after they intentionally spent time together, praying for one another and seeking God.
Successful current-day intercultural churches follow the same process: spending time together, praying, in one accord and seeking the Holy Spirit. Each voice is respected.
A few years ago, I attended a conference designed to discuss and explore the struggles of diversity.
Some of the most powerful discussions happened during cross-cultural and cross-denominational open dialogues about fears, misconceptions and the sharing of racial myths, generational perceptions and adages.
As we shared openly, laughed, cried and gasped, illumination filled the air and a ray of hope appeared.
While dialogue is important, strategies to change systems are critical.
Without the changing of systems that perpetuate poverty, ignorance, economic and educational oppression, health care disparities and other injustices, the church and the larger society will remain unchanged.
The church must determine to engage deeply in community outreach, education and legislative processes that will change unjust systems in the U.S. Churches are filled with people whose lives are shaped by these unjust systems.
In “Church on Purpose: Reinventing Discipleship, Community and Justice,” Adam L. Bond and Laura Mariko Cheifetz address this issue.
Bond declares in the first chapter, “What does it mean to be a citizen of God’s kingdom and a citizen of this country, of the world? These questions are too relevant and pressing to avoid them in our churches. As church, we teeter on the verge of irrelevance when we refuse to offer responsible “God talk” that interrogates our responsibilities as residents of the world.”
The church cannot ignore the realities of life circumstances.
We must have open and honest conversations about questions, hopes, dreams, fears and hesitancies.
To reach the place of being in one accord, individuals must be prepared to be honest about their thoughts. Truths must be spoken in love.
Even if it is difficult and uncomfortable, it is better to flesh out differences and concerns at the beginning than to wear masks and pretend that all is well when people really want to scream.
Invite an outside facilitator to come in early in the process – someone who can objectively guide dialogue regarding hopes, dreams, questions, fears and hesitancies. Oftentimes, we are too close to the situation to see pitfalls and roadblocks.
A skilled, godly facilitator could help a congregation to come to terms with the struggles they are facing and identify clear paths toward realizing specific goals.
By involving an outside, unbiased resource, a church can increase the possibility of receptivity of observations made and suggestions given.
Glenn Ebersole Jr., founder and chief executive of J.G. Ebersole Associates and the Renaissance Group, states the benefits that an outside, professional facilitator can bring to an organization:
- Unbiased objectivity
- Increased probability of a successful outcome
- Outside-the-box thinking
- Greater buy-in and implementation from team members
- Elimination of personal agendas
- Completion of meeting and achievement of desired outcomes in a timely manner
- Raising issues that need to be raised
- Creating a safe, non-threatening environment for open discussion and helping participants feel less intimidated
Although these suggestions were developed for secular organizations, they ring true for any organization.
Congregations must share positions of power. Healthy intercultural churches have various ethnicities represented in the pew and in positions of power.
Frequently, churches with cosmetic diversity have “tokens” or a few people of color on boards with little or no influence. They tout having diversity.
However, if those in positions have no voice, power or influence, they are merely shadows.
Elements of all ethnicities represented should be evident throughout the life of the church – in leadership structures, governing documents, worship, music, fellowship, outreach and all programs.
Intercultural churches happen best when people from the diverse cultures participate in shaping and forming the activities of the church. When those in the dominant culture make decisions without input from the other ethnicities, they run the risk of offending and alienating those they may be trying to include.
Be prepared to go the distance. Even under the best of circumstances, blending cultures can be challenging. This is not for the faint of heart.
A congregation must be committed to doing the hard work necessary for the intercultural ministry to flow. Those who want quick fixes and immediate congealing will be disappointed.
Even if it appears to happen quickly, beneath the surface there will always be challenges. The reward for intentionality and prayerful strategizing, however, will be the sweet aroma of togetherness, unity and love.
Giving birth is always painful and laborious, but the beauty of that which comes forth always trumps the struggle. The intercultural church is the true representation of heaven on earth.
Chris Smith is the senior pastor of Covenant Baptist Church in Euclid, Ohio. She is the author of “Beyond the Stained Glass Ceiling: Equipping and Encouraging Female Pastors.” Her writings also appear on her blog, Shepastor, and you can follow her on Twitter @Revcsmith1.
Editor’s note: This article includes portions excerpted from “Laying a Foundation for a True and Viable Intercultural Church” contributed by Christiane A. Smith from “Intercultural Ministry: Hope for a Changing World,” edited by Grace Ji-Sun Kim and Jann Aldredge-Clanton, copyright 2017 by Judson Press. Used by permission of Judson Press, 800-4-JUDSON, JudsonPress.com.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series focused on racism and the local church.
Previous articles in the series are:
Recognizing Hidden Racism’s Grip on Our Society by Ryon Price
When Will Churches Begin to Reflect Racial Diversity? by Timothy Peoples
Engaged Advocacy: Working Together for Racial Justice by Stephen K. Reeves
The Church Will Never End Racism by Ignoring It by Starlette Thomas
Lynching Memorial’s Haunting Reminder of Present Brutality by Charles Watson Jr.
Chris Smith is the senior pastor of Restoration Ministries of Greater Cleveland. She is the author of “Beyond the Stained Glass Ceiling: Equipping and Encouraging Female Pastors.”